It is apt that the swearing-in of a new prime minister who promises structural changes in the Indian polity, economy and administration coincided with the 50th death anniversary of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. There is a tendency among the harbingers of change to dismiss Nehru. This is partly born out of a reaction to the Congress’s idolatry of the man, and partly out of a spirit of iconoclasm that invariably grips heralds of change. It is necessary to step aside from both blind loyalty and blind dismissal and place Nehru in his own time and place, and to dissociate his achievements and his failures from what his successors — especially his daughter and grandson — did to his legacy. Nehru came to be the first prime minister out of the Congress-led Indian national movement. He thus carried with him the ideological values that had informed and shaped the national movement. He was thus a strong proponent of democracy and secularism, and he tried to have these values embedded in the Indian political system and the society at large.
Nehru also brought to his prime ministership an economic vision. He wanted India to become a self-sufficient nation with a strong manufacturing base. To this end, he saw the State as a critical actor in the economic sphere: the State would control the commanding heights of the economy, it would build the infrastructure required for rapid industrialization and, through the Planning Commission, it would be the principal allocator of economic resources. What underlay all this was the idea that through the initiatives of the State, the forces of production would be unshackled in India. Economic energies that had been moribund under colonial rule would be galvanized in free India. Nehru did not think about redistributing poverty, but about creating wealth that would work to alleviate poverty. Nehru recognized that to garner and manage the dynamic forces of production, India would need trained personnel, technical and managerial. The setting up of institutes of technology and management were parts of his overall vision. In many ways, he was a pioneer and he did not hesitate to break away from the economic ideas of his mentor, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
There is another part of the Nehruvian legacy that needs to be underlined. For the major part of his long tenure as prime minister, Nehru was the undisputed leader of the government and the party. But he carefully refused to tread the path of illiberalism. He upheld democratic and parliamentary procedures, was scrupulous in performing his parliamentary duties and in maintaining his primus inter pares position within the cabinet. He became the tutor of democracy to a new republic. There is much that the present can learn from Nehru’s legacy.